At Steppenwolf this fall, the stage is hosting a 25-year reunion among some of the storied theater company's renowned artists. With "East of Eden," adaptor Frank Galati reunites with director Terry Kinney and actor Francis Guinan almost exactly a quarter of a century after the three teamed up for another John Steinbeck story, "The Grapes of Wrath."
Guinan plays Samuel in Galati's dramatization of "East of Eden", a preacher with seemingly mystical powers of divination. The role is compact but mighty, and sets in motion a multi-generational plot that follows the fate of a troubled family in California's Salinas Valley. Set in the early decades of the 20th century, the piece centers on Adam (Tim Hopper), his ferociously strong-willed wife Cathy (Kate Arrington), and their twin sons Caleb (Aaron Himmelstein) and Aron (Casey Thomas Brown).
We talked with ensemble member Francis Guinan about this new Steppenwolf production and his role. Here's what he had to say, lightly edited for clarity.
On how he's changed since his last bout with Steinbeck:
"Of course, I've changed a lot in 25 years. My children have grown up. I've spent 17 years in California doing TV and film. But the biggest change I notice most days? It's gotten a bit harder to memorize lines.
Playing Samuel is nothing like playing the three small parts I had in ‘Grapes of Wrath.' I think those three characters were very much plot driven — the man who was the camp director, the man who sold cars, the man who had lost everything — they all were grounded in what they did. Samuel is on a more on a spiritual or esoteric plane.
He's plugged into this world that's different than everybody else's in part because he has the rare ability to see exactly what's in front of him. Most people bring their own point of view to everything. He doesn't.
There's two lines that other characters have that I find telling: Cathy says ‘Samuel looked into me and I hated him for it.' And Adam says, ‘He looked into me as well, but I found it revelatory.' That's the kind of power Samuel has on people. He can see them for what they truly are."
On why he couldn't have played Samuel 25 years ago:
"I could not have played this part 25 years ago. No way. Although it would have been a lot easier because I wouldn't have had a clue as to what Samuel was about, so I wouldn't have even begun to dig into him.
I haven't read the novel, intentionally. It's a gigantic work, and one of the huge challenges Frank faced was getting it down to a play that wasn't six hours or longer. There's an awful lot you have to leave out. I was afraid if I read Steinbeck's book, I'd bring something on stage that wasn't in the play. I wanted to focus on how Frank's script told the story."
On why he abandoned SoCal sunshine and a solid Hollywood film and television career in favor of brutal Midwestern winters and Chicago stages:
"I came back to Chicago in 2006, after 17 years in L.A. It was for purely practical reasons. I got work in L.A., but pay scales in TV and movies weren't rising. Actually, they were going down. It was getting harder and harder to make a living. Here, I'm in the extremely envious position of being able to work at what I love and being able to support my family doing it.
I'm a Chicago actor, always will be. I use my TV money to pay for the house and the bills. But what I love is live theater.
For now though, I'm still getting my head around Samuel. There's so much to the character and the story. Good versus evil, fathers and sons, brothers against brothers — I'll never be able to fully answer all the questions this show brings up... Well, maybe I'll be able to a little bit by the end of the run. Ask me after we close."
"East of Eden" runs through Nov. 15 at the Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted. Tickets are $20 - $89. For more information, go to steppenwolf.org.
You can also catch Guinan on the small screen in select episodes of "Chicago Fire" and "Boss" and in the upcoming movies "Freudian Slip" and "The Storyteller."